Saturday, April 23, 2022

Paradise Square

The first time I tried to see Paradise Square on Broadway, I received an e-mail the afternoon before the performance. The show had been suspended due to Covid protocols, and my money would be refunded.

It was disappointing, to say the least, especially since while Broadway has been taking public health measures extremely seriously, others in our society have been doing just the opposite. It seems no matter how responsible we try to be, someone else's irresponsibility always ends up ruining things for everyone.

Interestingly enough, the same is true for the world of Paradise Square, which I finally got to see last night. The main characters in the play go out of their way to show compassion, love indiscriminately, and build community, but in the end, others motivated by selfishness, hatred, and greed just burn it all down.

Set in the old Five Points neighborhood during the U.S. Civil War and the New York City draft riots, Paradise Square engages with an important moment in the history of this city and of our nation. It was originally conceived by Larry Kirwan, whose play Hard Times told the same story in an Off-Off-Broadway production in 2012.

As former frontman for the rock band Black 47, Kirwan is no stranger to fame, but he is dwarfed by some of the other names in the artistic team, including director Moises Kaufman (perhaps best known for The Laramie Project) and choreographer Bill T. Jones (Fela!, Spring Awakening, etc., etc., etc.) who are given top billing. The biggest name in the show, though, is Stephen Foster, the 19th-century composer whose songs are adapted for the musical's score.

Jason Howland is credited with providing the music, and Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare with the lyrics, but just as Foster borrowed from and adapted numerous traditional ditties, Paradise Square borrows and adapts heavily from Foster, who even appears as a character in the play. Ironically, Foster is accused in the second act of appropriating other people's music for his own purposes, which is precisely what Paradise Square does as well.

The musical quotes briefly from Foster's "Old Folks at Home" before going into an extended sequence of his hit "Camptown Races." Later, Foster's song "Gentle Annie" is applied to the character of Annie Lewis, played by Chilina Kennedy. The song "Why Should I Die in Springtime" draws upon Foster's "I Would Not Die in Springtime" and "I'd Be a Soldier" reimagines another Foster Song, "I'll Be a Soldier." My favorite song in the show, though, is Foster's "Angelina Baker" (sometimes known as "Angeline the Baker"), which gets reprised twice.

This isn't to say that all of the music is based on Stephen Foster. Toward the end of the show, Joaquina Kalukango brings down the house as the character Nelly O'Brien, singing "Let It Burn." If this typical Broadway showstopper is based on anything from the 19th century, I missed what it was. In any case, Kalukango performs it brilliantly, and it's perfect for the moment it provides.

If you get a chance to see Paradise Square on Broadway, I heartily recommend it. Though set in 1863, it is quite timely for our current political moment in 2022.